U.S. Army aviation officials said Wednesday that the novel coronavirus pandemic caused a slight delay in a key phase of the improved helicopter engine program being designed for the current fleet, as well as the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft under the service's Future Vertical Lift initiative.
The COVID-19 virus interrupted the shipment of key components for the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) and delayed the planned acceleration of the critical design review (CDR) of the program, which was scheduled for the second quarter of this fiscal year, Patrick Mason, the head of Program Executive Office Aviation, said during a webinar hosted by the Heritage Foundation.
"We have actually started to execute the critical design review for ITEP," said Mason, who told the audience that program officials had hoped to accelerate the CDR into completion in the second quarter.
"With COVID, we weren't able to do that, so we are executing in third quarter. Our original baseline was fourth quarter of this fiscal year, so we will finish the CDR prior to the original plan."
ITEP program officials are scheduled to conduct tests on the General Electric Aviation T901 turbine engine next year. If all goes well, the 3,000-shaft horsepower class engine will significantly enhance the performance of current UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64 Apache helicopters, as well as serve as the engine for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), which is designed to fill a capability gap created by the retired OH-58 Kiowa, aviation officials maintain.
"ITEP is the engine for the FARA platform; it's also the engine that's going to go on the Black Hawk and the Apache aircraft," Mason said. "That engine is well sized to go into FARA. It creates commonality with our UH-60 fleet and our [AH-64] fleet, which really significantly reduces the logistics burden that we have out in the field, where we have multiple different engines."
The Army's Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, being designed to eventually replace the Black Hawk fleet, will require a heavier engine, he said.
"I say heavy because the FLRAA is just a bigger aircraft, so you need more horsepower out of that engine, and industry, as part of their proposal, will be selecting the engine there," Mason said.
The FLRAA is scheduled to begin replacing the Black Hawk in the 2030 timeframe, but it will likely take years before the venerable workhorse is out of the service's inventory, aviation officials have said.
The Army completed two milestones for Future Vertical Lift in March, just as COVID-19 began creating challenges for modernization programs.
In mid-March, Army aviation officials selected Bell Textron Inc. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. to continue into the FLRAA Competitive Demonstration and Risk Reduction phase of the program, which is expected to last until 2022, the year the service plans to choose one vendor to build the Black Hawk replacement.
Then in late March, the service selected Bell Textron's 360 Invictus and Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky Raider X for the final prototyping stage of FARA.
The technology for the ITEP program is in the advanced stages, so it's more likely to be impacted by supply chain delays, Mason said.
ITEP is a "really high watch item because we are actually shipping hardware, so there is an extensive supply chain. ... Those are things you can't telework; those are folks that have to go into work because they are building components that are coming together," he said.
"That is going to be critical over the next month to two months," Mason said.
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